WASHINGTON, Nov. 25, 2015 - Farming and the food industry are experiencing chronic labor shortages; reports are widespread about fields not harvested because of an insufficient work force and political leaders worry about the need to replace aging farmers. But a parallel dearth of skilled, college-educated talent in a variety of disciplines needed in modern agriculture gets far less public and official attention.

With rapidly growing specialization on modern commercial farms, questions arise about how farm operators will obtain the skills and talents needed to cope with increasing technical demands, whether from horizons opened by “Big Data” in commodity crops or the imperatives of federal regulation and consumer sentiment about how meat animals and poultry are raised.

The need is being addressed by a wide range of public and private groups from USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to the AGree effort to transform agriculture and the 2-year-old public-private STEM Food and Ag Council (for science, technology, engineering and math). Several industry trade associations have begun programs to encourage new talent.

“Agriculture is now a knowledge industry,” Farm Foundation President Neil Conklin told Agri-Pulse. “As we become more specialized, and as technologies have become more complex, the level of knowledge that it takes to run a successful farm has become really pretty amazing.”

Animal agriculture experienced the first wave of specialization with genetics and the collection of detailed knowledge about how to feed and manage animals, Conklin said. To manage the most productive, large-scale dairy farms today, he said, “they need veterinarians, they need nutritionists, they need IT [information technology] people today.” Increasingly, they need talent in marketing milk and hedging milk and inputs because policies have changed, he adds. “The farmer today is a business person who knows how to put all these specialties together.”

“The whole business has really been transformed,” says Conklin. “If you look at hogs and poultry and the advent of integration, it’s interesting to see different patterns. In poultry, it’s the integrator who brings the specialized knowledge and the farmer provides labor and capital.

“In both our soil health work and in our antibiotic work we are gaining a new appreciation for the critical importance of specialists in advising farmers,” he says. “It is also closely related to the declining role of extension in commercial agriculture. From my point of view it is not that the decline of extension has led to the rise of crop and veterinary consultants, but rather that there are powerful forces at work transforming markets for information in production agriculture.”

Last May, a report published by NIFA and Purdue University estimated that nearly 58,000 U.S. jobs would need to be filled every year in the food, agriculture, resource and environmental sectors. “The jobs reflect a need for a highly skilled and trained workforce” to meet future food needs, NIFA Director Sonny Ramaswamy said. The report sees 46 percent of those new jobs in management and business, 27 percent in STEM areas, 15 percent in farm production and 12 percent in education, communication and government.

“More often than in the past, food production consultants will find jobs working with growers to assure compliance with contracted production management operations,” the report adds. “Graduates with degrees in sustainable crop production and management will likely fare better in the employment market than will those with degrees in animal production and management,” although graduates in animal specialties continue to outnumber those with crops credentials.

Among its conclusions: strong demand for e-commerce and marketing experts, ecosystem managers, agricultural science educators, crop advisers and pest control specialists. Also, job opportunities exist for plant scientists, food scientists, sustainable biomaterials specialists, water resources scientists and engineers, precision agriculture specialists and veterinarians.

The scarcity of veterinarians, a long-standing problem in some rural areas, may become more acute as livestock producers face new antimicrobial drug standards. After holding 12 workshops across the country this fall, the Farm Foundation plans a report early next year to synthesize the economic and physical challenges for producers to follow new Food and Drug Administration guidance for the use of medically-important antimicrobial drugs in food animals. Some antibiotics, now available over the counter, will require a veterinarian’s prescription or oversight of use. “In order to get a prescription, a producer needs a relationship with a vet,” Conklin says.

“In big integrated operations, they have vets on staff, or they have a contract relationship with a veterinary practice,” he adds. “Even in dairy operations that are not large enough to have a vet on staff – people with 500 up to 2,000 cows – veterinary practices have become extremely specialized.” But “especially with small, independent producers, many don’t have that kind of relationship.” By contrast, contract producers, “If you’ve got a problem, you call the integrator.

“Today, the range of issues and subject matters important to agriculture has broadened, and the educational system to provide skilled individuals to fill the needed occupations has scrambled to keep pace,” agricultural economist Stephanie Mercier writes in an AGree paper. The crucial areas of expertise now encompass not just those trained in production agriculture but also food and nutrition, natural resources, and the know-how to maintain and improve the physical and scientific infrastructure that underlies modern agriculture, including an increased role for information technology with the emergence of ‘big ag data,’” Mercier says.

“To be honest, the land grant system has been geared to training people for a very different world,” Conklin said, but he is aware of efforts to catch up. One in Florida seeks “to put together a plant health program equivalent of a veterinary degree for crops, with strong backgrounds in plant pathology, entomology, and all the different disciplines that go into it.”

Conklin finds innovative programs popping up outside the land grant system, such as the State University of New York at Cobleskill, founded in 1916 as the Schoharie School of Agriculture, which now offers “one of the most diverse agricultural programs in the United States.” Its focus is on the needs identified in the NIFA report for increased production of fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, and organic crops near metropolitan centers.

At last month’s World Food Prize activities in Iowa, the STEM Food and Ag Council launched an initiative to promote careers in food and agriculture. Called “Feed, Nourish, Thrive,” it aims to “inspire a new generation of innovators in farm production.” The council hopes to “increase the number of people working to feed the planet's growing population through science, technology, engineering and math.”

“Technology and innovation are the future of farming,” the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) says in promoting its Farm Bureau Rural Entrepreneurship Challenge with the promise of prizes for start-ups in rural areas. “Farmers and ranchers today have access to new agriculture technologies that were once simply a sci-fi dream – drones soaring across corn fields, genetically modified crops growing with fewer pesticides and real-time soil monitoring,” AFBF says.

Among finalists for grants in 2016 are an entrepreneur that developed a mobile customer support application to allows one-touch access to advisers and another that uses X-ray technology to revolutionize the way the grain industry inventories and measures flowing grain. Winners will be announced at AFBF’s 97th Annual Convention in January.

When dairy companies identified a “leadership gap” looming in the industry, the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) created a  NextGEN Dairy Network to help fill it. “We have a very real issue in our industry today with so many of our top managers and executives retiring over the next five years,” Gary Vanic, former CEO of Great Lakes Cheese Co., told IDFA. “If producers and processors don’t cultivate this next generation of dairy leaders now, there will be huge void as current leaders face retirement in the coming years,” said Emily Meredith, vice president of animal care at the National Milk Producers Federation.


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